How I saved over $16,000 on my 1st international business-class flight using points and miles
Welcome to the fifth installment of a yearlong series where Tarah Chieffi, TPG’s family travel reporter, shares her experience using various points, benefits, credits and access from her first premium rewards credit card, The Platinum Card® from American Express.
- Is the Amex Platinum worth it for a points and miles newbie? I booked a trip to find out
- 8 tips from a newbie on maximizing the Amex Platinum’s benefits
- I’m an Amex Platinum newbie — here’s why lounge access is surprisingly my favorite perk
- Booking my 1st big points redemption with the Amex Platinum Card
With three kids, most of the "getaways" I take with my husband are quick weekend trips or overnight escapes. We did manage one weeklong vacation to Italy when I was pregnant with our second child, but since we've added a third kid to the mix, extended kid-free getaways have become even fewer and further between.
I'm happy to report that we just returned from our second such journey — a six-day European adventure through Germany and Belgium. Because we don't get to take trips like this very often, I've spent months planning hotels, transportation and activities to help us squeeze in as many sights and cities as possible.
To further take advantage of this rare stretch of kid-free time, I wanted to make sure we flew in comfort and class — business class, to be exact. As I outlined in an earlier story in this series, I converted American Express Membership Rewards points I earned with The Platinum Card® from American Express to Flying Blue miles during a special offer period that earned us 1.25 miles for every point. I used those points to reserve business-class seats to and from Europe and saved more than $11,000 over the price of booking the same flights using cash.
Here's how I did it, what I loved and what I learned along the way.
Booking a business-class flight using Amex Membership Rewards points
After some preliminary searching, I found the best way to use the American Express Membership Rewards points I had earned through my sign-up bonus (100,000 points) and monthly spending was to convert my points into miles by transferring them to my Flying Blue account. Flying Blue is the loyalty program for Air France and KLM. Both airlines have dynamic pricing on award tickets and it's surprisingly easy to find deals on business-class flights, especially if your dates are flexible.
Related: The cheapest business-class awards across all three alliances
I held onto my Membership Rewards points until Amex was running a promotion on transfers to Flying Blue. I was able to convert 269,999 Membership Rewards points into 336,250 Flying Blue miles, enough to book business-class flights for my husband and myself between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Munich International Airport (MUC) via KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and between Brussels Gare du Midi (ZYR) and JFK via Air France for the return journey.
Had we paid cash, we would have spent over $16,000 for those same flights. As it was, I redeemed 168,000 miles (per person — or 336,000 total) and our cash outlay was just under $1,000 for taxes, fees and fuel surcharges. I'm sure some points and miles experts out there are wincing at that number, but in my defense, I told you upfront that I am a newbie.
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Airport perks of flying business class
The perks of flying business class, I learned, go far beyond comfy seats and multicourse inflight meals. When we arrived at JFK, we were able to utilize the Sky Priority lane for an expedited check-in experience.
Before leaving JFK, we were granted complimentary access to the Delta Sky Club lounge because we were flying on a SkyTeam partner flight in business class. We grabbed some preflight drinks and a few snacks, and charged our devices before it was time for takeoff. Our gate was only a few minutes from the lounge and we were some of the first to board our flight.
We had a short layover at Amsterdam Airport Schipol (AMS), which we spent in KLM's flagship Crown Lounge. After an overnight flight, it was nice to have a spot to brush my teeth and grab a quick meal before completing our journey to Munich. The real highlight, though, was the clever, quirky design of the lounge. My favorite features were the wall of Delft tiles that whimsically depicted scenes from the inflight safety video, and the glass-walled displays of KLM's signature Delft blue miniature houses.
For the journey home, we had the opportunity to try out the Air France lounge at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in Terminal 2E, Hall L. It was the nicest (and quietest) of all the airport lounges we visited during our trip, but it lacked the playful personality I loved about the KLM lounge. What it lacked in that regard, it made up for with specialty cocktails and an impressive selection of food and drinks.
No matter the location, waiting for your flight in an airport lounge is much preferred to waiting at the gate and I was thrilled to have that benefit included with our flights.
My first inflight business-class experience
Airport lounges are nice and all, but the point of booking this flight was to board a plane and get to Germany. After settling into our seats on our KLM flight from New York to Munich, we were greeted with a welcome glass of Champagne, an amenity kit with toiletries to freshen up during our flight and a menu with various dinner choices.
Since I had never flown business class, I spent the first 10 or 15 minutes after boarding pushing every button and opening every compartment to see how it all worked. When my play time was over, Kevin and I watched "Top Gun" together while we ate our meal.
After dinner, I was tempted to stay awake and continue enjoying the perks of being in business class, but one of the real benefits is having a comfortable lie-flat seat, a pillow and blanket and an eye mask so you stand a fighting chance of getting a good night's sleep. Because of the six-hour time difference, it would be about 7 a.m. when we landed in Amsterdam, so I made the smart decision and got some shut-eye.
I slept straight through the breakfast service and when I awoke, the gift I had been so excited for was waiting for me on my tray table — a gin-filled Delftware miniature house. The airline has been gifting these to passengers in long-haul business-class cabins since the 1950s and I'd been looking forward to adding one to my collection of travel trinkets. KLM has produced more than 100 versions of these miniature houses. The one I received was designed to look like a 1915 building that once served as KLM's main office.
Our flight home on Air France was a similar experience, though this time around I felt I knew the ropes a bit better. I was more familiar with the seats and what to expect between takeoff and touchdown. And even though it would be 9 p.m. in New York when we landed, my body thought it would be 3 a.m., so I took a short nap after the dinner service and the obligatory glass (or two) of welcome Champagne.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit it will be tough to take a long-haul flight in a standard economy seat going forward (especially an overnight flight). The comfort, perks and world-class service of traveling business class are hard to beat, especially when it is paid for with points and miles I earned through everyday spending.
Related: 11 tips for surviving a long-haul flight in economy
That being said, I don't plan on using my points and miles solely for fancy business-class flights. For shorter flights (international or domestic), I'll prudently use my points and miles here and there for an off-peak economy ticket, but I'll save the majority of my points for splurges like the one I just experienced.
In the future, I probably will work harder to find an airline that doesn't pass on hefty fuel surcharges so I can truly feel like I got the flight for "free." I don't regret booking the flights we did, though, because they worked for our dates and destinations and I understand that maximizing points and miles is a learning process.
Nobody is an expert at anything when they start and it is only by starting — and embracing your status as a newbie — that you can learn how this points and miles game works and eventually become an expert who enjoys welcome glasses of Champagne whenever they choose.